July 16, 2020

Part of surplus sought for education > $43 million would go to general purpose aid fund, school renovations

To bolster state help for kindergarten through 12th-grade education in public schools, lawmakers have two major approaches they can take.

They can add to the money already allocated for general-purpose aid to schools. They also can pour money into a fund to pay for renovations and repairs to schools.

When the Legislature reconvenes next week, it will have to figure out what to do with a projected $250 million in revenue that wasn’t anticipated when the two-year state budget was finalized last spring.

State Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese already has asked Gov. Angus King to add $14.6 million to general-purpose aid to schools for the upcoming school year and $20 million in cash to the renovation fund.

But Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, calls the commissioner’s GPA recommendation “tepid.” Brennan, who is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, has proposed adding $43 million.

This amount, among other things, keeps the state moving toward covering 55 percent of statewide education costs, a goal the Legislature set back in the 1980s, he said recently. This school year the state’s share is 44.4 percent. Local school districts pick up the remainder.

For the current school year, the state allocated $626.6 million in GPA. Already in the state budget for next school year is $641.3 million.

Education was a priority of both Democrats and Republicans last legislative session, and will be so again in the upcoming session, lawmakers say.

However, if recent legislative sessions are any indication, the amount added to GPA will land somewhere between Albanese’s and Brennan’s proposals, said Sen. Mary Small, R-Bath, an Education Committee member.

“Generally we fall somewhere above the commissioner’s recommendation and below what we want,” she said this past week.

The issue of where the money goes — to GPA or the renovation fund — will boil down to whether the unexpected revenues are one-time or recurring sums, Small said.

“If it is one-time money, putting it into the renovation fund will be more prudent,” she said.

Sen. Robert “Buddy” Murray, D-Bangor, another Education Committee member, said the renovation fund is an easy option when there is a question whether the money is ongoing or one-time.

“I hope we don’t lose track of GPA,” he said.

The school renovation fund was established two years ago. The commission that urged its creation suggested that the state infuse it with $100 million through bond issues of $30 million or more in three consecutive years. Instead lawmakers put $43 million in cash into the fund over the past two years.

Concerning GPA, lawmakers this spring set in motion a mechanism fashioned by the education department that, over four years, raises the “per-pupil guarantee,” a minimum amount per student to be spent by the state and districts combined, to make it equal to the actual average spent on each student across the state. It also moves the state toward paying its statutory share of education expenses known as “program costs.”

Thus when it comes to adding money to GPA, Albanese said lawmakers have several decisions to make. The amount he is recommending would keep the state on track to meet the targets laid out in the spring.

If lawmakers go beyond his recommendation, they must decide whether they want to accelerate the rate at which they reach the per-pupil guarantee goal or to pick up the pace in reaching the target on program costs, he said. They also must decide what to do about the minimum property-tax rate — or mill rate — that the state requires every town and city to raise for education.

Currently, the per-pupil guarantee is $4,020, but the actual average amount spent on each student in the state is $4,626. The goal is to have the guarantee equal projected actual spending of $5,204 in the 2002-03 school year.

Albanese’s request would raise the guarantee to $4,307 next school year.

When it comes to program costs — the money school districts spend on special education, vocational education, transportation and early childhood programs — the state is supposed to be paying just over $153 million in the current school year. Instead it is paying just under $130 million.

The goal is for the state to cover the full $182 million in projected program costs come 2002-03.

The current required mill rate is $6.67 per thousand dollars of valuation. Under Albanese’s recommendation, this would rise to $7.11. Brennan’s plan is to hold the mill rate at the current level.

According to the commissioner, hoisting up the per-pupil guarantee helps property-poor towns because the state picks up more of the difference between the current guarantee and the higher one.

Speeding up the program-cost coverage tends to help districts with high special-education expenses, he said.

And using additional money to keep the mill rate at the current level helps wealthier towns that get little state education aid because their property-tax payers would have to make up the difference if the rate rose, Albanese said.

Meantime, he said, putting cash into the school renovation fund will help get money to schools faster to deal with health and safety problems that are “in our face.”

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